How We Can Empower Girls in STEAM
STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, is a growing field that is ensuring new graduates entering the workforce for the first time have all the skills they need to succeed in an ever-growing and consistently changing industry.
This education is equally important for both boys and girls, but many STEM and STEAM curricula focus on catching the attention of boys, leaving girls behind. What can we do, as parents and educators, to empower girls in STEAM in the coming years?
STEM vs. STEAM
First, what's the difference between STEM and STEAM?
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but it doesn't focus solely on those four core subjects. It teaches everything from creativity and problem-solving to how to work collaboratively and innovate, both individually and on a team.
STEAM adds an A for arts, even though STEM lessons naturally involve art. Look at engineering, for example — everything from the initial drafting stages to the construction of the finished product has artistry woven through it. Some naysayers believe adding art to STEM lessons devalues art on its own, while others think it's only natural to add the A to these lessons.
The most prominent problem educators are facing with either STEM or STEAM curricula is making them appealing to both genders. We tend to expect boys to be interested in science, programming, engineering, robotics and other STEM fields. Though we don't precisely discourage girls from exploring these fields, the number of boys-only STEM camps makes it difficult for them to find the education they're looking for. What can we do to help empower girls in STEM and STEAM fields?
A High-Demand Industry
Computer science, one part of the STEM fields, is a growing industry. It might not be growing as fast as it used to, but the demand for new minds in IT fields is likely to continue to grow at least twice as fast as other fields.
Technology has traditionally been a male-dominated field, which is what makes its growth so interesting — women who choose a career in information technology can expect to earn up to 33 percent more than they would in other, more traditional, roles. The highest demand right now is in web design and cybersecurity.
Right now, women only make up about 30 percent of the industry, but that number will continue to grow if we can get more girls interested in STEM or STEAM at an early age.
Keep Them Interested
Research has shown students start showing an interest in STEM fields as early as second grade. Girls tend to lose that interest around middle school, as they start finding their place in the social hierarchy — science, math and other STEM-related pursuits aren't as "cool," so they tend to fall by the wayside. Being a nerd isn't as much of a social death sentence as it used to be, but might still knock you off the path to prom queen.
The challenge isn't to get them interested — getting kids interested in science isn't hard, regardless of their gender. The problem is in keeping them engaged once they get older and start thinking of what they want to do with their lives.
Girls often choose careers because they can see the difference they will make as adults. They want to be able to see what they can accomplish, and what they can do to change the world before they ever start in their career. For someone who chooses a medical profession, for example, this is easy — they might not be able to see the faces of the patients they'll help, but the fact that there are patients who will need their help make it easier to visualize.
Don't focus exclusively on the apparent career choices that are easy to visualize. Show girls how working in a STEM field — any STEM field — can change the world.
Be a Mentor — or Find Them Mentors
It's hard to picture yourself in a field — regardless of the specialty — if you don't have someone to look up to. There are more women in STEAM fields than ever before, but it can still be difficult for girls to find someone to look up to. The recent Disney movie Moana earned praise for giving girls of color a lead character who looked like them. The same little girl who's looking for a heroine in a Disney movie that looks like her may be looking for a mentor who does, as well.
If you're working in a STEAM field or teaching STEM classes, set yourself up as a mentor. Give these girls someone to look up to. Diversity in STEAM is just as crucial as it is in every other field. If you aren't in the position to be a mentor, start decorating your classroom with STEAM-themed artwork or picking up books on women in STEAM. Pick up a subscription to Diversity in STEAM magazine, and check out their articles in your class.
Girls are more likely to stick with a STEAM or STEM field if they've got someone to inspire them. Bringing more women into the field might be as simple as putting up a poster of astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison or engineer Diana Trujillo and talking about their accomplishments.
How many times have you caught yourself saying something like: "Oh no, honey, you don't want to do that. That's messy/dirty/for boys?"
Stop that. When it comes to careers — any career — be prepared to throw the gender dichotomy out the window. There are no fields "for boys" or "for girls." Boys can be successful nurses and homemakers and fashion designers, just as girls can stand out as astronauts and engineers and computer programmers.
Anytime you talk about STEM or STEAM fields, make sure you're not separating them by what might be suitable for either gender. The goal here is to encourage both boys and girls to take an interest in STEM fields, not to discourage them by separating them by gender.
Your job is to nudge them in the right direction. As a parent or educator, you're often the first person a child will ask if they're interested in a specific field. Don't quash their enthusiasm before it has a chance to grow.
Girls have the potential to take the STEM and STEAM world by storm. All we have to do is encourage them. Start young, and continue to support them throughout their school career.
*Photo Credit: STEMShare NSW on Unsplash